Congress’s interminable shutdown cycle, explained.
House Speaker Mike Johnson speaks at the US Capitol ahead of the government funding deal. Valerie Plesch/Bloomberg/Getty Images Li Zhou is a politics reporter at Vox, where she covers Congress and elections. Previously, she was a tech policy reporter at Politico and an editorial fellow at the Atlantic.
On Thursday, Congress narrowly averted a government shutdown, one day before a January 19 funding deadline.
That’s welcome news: Government employees won’t be furloughed and programs won’t be delayed — but only for now. The deal does nothing to resolve the spending disagreements that put the government in danger of a shutdown in the first place, and could threaten the House’s ability to function if far-right Republicans unhappy with the deal manage to oust Speaker Mike Johnson over what they see as intolerable compromises with Democrats.
The short-term spending bill Congress passed — known as a continuing resolution, or CR — will only keep the government funded until early March. At that point, Congress, and the country, will have to navigate questions about a potential shutdown all over again.
In recent years, shutdowns — or the threat of one — have become more common as Congress has become more polarized and as lawmakers, particularly Republicans, have sought to leverage these must-pass annual spending bills to send a message to their base. Conservatives, for instance, have recently threatened to shut down the government if the spending deal didn’t include more aggressive border security policies that make it harder to seek asylum.
This week, Democrats jumped in to help the House GOP pass the CR without the assistance of these hardliners, but it’s this kind of partisan grandstanding that leads to the government feeling like it’s constantly on the verge of a shutdown and that Congress is unable to complete even its most basic tasks.
Why are we talking about a potential shutdown again?
Each year, lawmakers have to pass either 12 full-year spending bills or a CR by the end of September in order to keep the government open.
Because Congress tends to procrastinate, lawmakers are often working up until that deadline on these bills, heightening concerns that they might not finish the job.
That’s exactly what happened last September when Congress approved a short-term spending bill that gave them until mid-November to finish the full-year spending bills. At the time, then-House Speaker Kevin McCarthy had to rely on Democrats to help keep the government open since the right flank of his caucus was refusing to do so.
That dynamic ultimately led to complete chaos in House Republican leadership. Because of a new rule that McCarthy agreed to this term, any single lawmaker is able to force a vote removing the speaker if they’re unhappy with that person. McCarthy’s decision to work with Democrats, which conservatives slammed, ultimately led to a vote on his removal as speaker, which succeeded.
McCarthy’s removal, however, didn’t mean Congress’s approach to the funding bills changed. With the November deadline fast approaching, House Republicans once again worked with Democrats to approve another short-term spending bill, this time giving them two new deadlines to pass legislation: Funding for some agencies expired on January 19, while funding for other agencies expired on February 2.
To prevent the latest batch of funding from expiring, Congress scrambled this week to try to find a deal. Really, they only had one option: a short-term spending bill, as they didn’t leave themselves enough time for the negotiations involved with a full-year spending package — especially given the conservative demands around the border that are nonstarters with most Democrats.
Such CRs are unpopular with Republicans and have been criticized by Johnson, too, fueling concerns that the government could shut down this winter. In order to avoid that scenario, Johnson ultimately relied on Democratic votes just like McCarthy did to ensure a short-term funding bill could pass.
What does it mean that Democrats are bailing out the House GOP?
In a sign of the ongoing fracturing among House Republicans — and opposition to spending by the party’s right flank — 106 GOP members voted against the short-term spending legislation backed by their leadership on Thursday.
This dynamic underscores how divided House Republicans continue to be, and the power that Democrats have to make or break certain votes. Democrats did not reportedly extract any major concessions from Johnson in exchange for their support to keep the government open, since lawmakers were hoping to avoid a shutdown. If Johnson continues to rely on their backing, however, it’s possible that they could make such demands.
By working with Democrats, Johnson, like his predecessor, also jeopardizes his support from his own conference, particularly from more conservative members who are irked about the partnership. If they were to abandon him, that would plunge the House (and the government funding process) into chaos. Again.
The short-term spending bill sets new spending deadlines for Congress with funding for some agencies — including the Agriculture Department, Transportation Department, and Energy Department — expiring on March 1 and funding for the remaining agencies expiring on March 8. We’ll probably revisit the question of whether there will be a government shutdown once more around that time.
Lawmakers have said they hope to wrap the full-year spending bills by then. Thus far, the House and Senate have reached a deal on how much non-defense and defense spending levels should be for 2024, $886 billion and $704 billion respectively, but they still need to hammer out the specifics for how much particular agencies and programs should receive.
Congress also has the potential to do yet another CR ahead of the March deadline, but it runs the risk of activating a 1 percent across-the-board spending cut if it hasn’t passed full-year spending bills by April 30. An agreement lawmakers previously inked on the debt ceiling included this spending cut in order to motivate Congress to get its work done more quickly. If lawmakers don’t approve full-year spending bills by April 30, agencies will have to navigate how they’d cut back on their spending to meet the 1 percent threshold.
Complicating all of this is that Johnson could face threats to his speakership.
It doesn’t appear that most Republicans want to wade back into the mess caused by McCarthy’s ouster, and there’s no clear candidate to replace Johnson if the party got rid of him. But conservatives are very angry with him over his decision to use a CR and to work with Democrats. And some in his caucus, including Texas Rep. Chip Roy and Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene have signaled willingness to depose him, just like McCarthy.
Can we stop this cycle of almost shutting down?
Congress absolutely has the tools to prevent future shutdowns but is hesitant to use them, in part because some of the options have their own downsides.
First, lawmakers could simply pass spending legislation on time and stop using it as a political cudgel, an unlikely prospect. Second, there have been bills proposed that would impose an automatic continuing resolution if Congress doesn’t manage to approve full-year bills in time.
A past measure from Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA), for example, would have guaranteed the automatic institution of a new CR any time Congress missed a deadline and simultaneously halted funding to the executive and legislative branches in order to incentivize lawmakers to take action on full-year bills.
The disadvantage of an approach like this is that the knowledge that there’s a CR waiting in the wings could deter lawmakers from negotiating on annual spending levels and providing resources to new programs.
Because Congress is forced to compromise on spending bills under the current system, lawmakers have to engage with how government programs are being funded on an annual basis, something that could be lost if the approval of such measures is automated.